Rebounding Grizzlies Still Face, and Pose, Risks
Yellowstone's rebounding grizzly bear population is an undeniable success. But figuring out how to manage the threatened omnivores--in light of potential food shortages and deadly human-grizzly interactions--isn't so easy.
The grizzlies came over the ridge in the setting sunlight, a female and two cubs. The female's harvest gold coat rippled like it consisted of two layers, one that floated above the other on a layer of oily muscle. from a distance, she looked like a 300-pound bundle of power flowing over the meadow. The cubs ambled along in a teeter-totter gait, roly-poly goofballs as big as St. Bernards, but chubbier. They crossed a grassy bench in Yellowstone National Park's Lamar Valley, skirting a pocket of bison.
Donna and Glenn Vessels watched through binoculars. Donna is in office and furniture supply sales and Glenn is an industrial electrician supervisor. In three days the Vessels, who were in Yellowstone from Troup, Texas, a trip they make twice each year, had seen 22 bears. On this spring evening they had stood in one spot for 90 minutes and seen nine bears, four of which were grizzlies.
"They're just awesome," Donna said. "We tell everyone we can that they need to come here and see it. It's just so inspiring, so beautiful."
"You don't get to see anything like this anywhere else in the United States," Glenn said, then specified the contiguous United States, because they had been to Alaska and seen grizzlies. But Yellowstone is where they keep coming back to.
On the bench, the bison cows stopped feeding, watching the grizzly and her cubs, eyeing the distance between her and their calves. The bears continued, then disappeared over a rise.
"Grizzly bears have this ability to sharpen our senses and our acuity, and they bring us closer to nature by doing that," says Chris Servheen, grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and an adviser to the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee--the multi-jurisdictional government effort to recover grizzlies--since its inception in 1983. Servheen has seen countless grizzlies, but still appreciates each encounter. "When you're in bear habitat you have to be more aware of which direction the wind is blowing, what the marks on the trail are, and if you have sight distance on the trail. Bears are magical that way. They bring that heightened sensitivity to us, and we need that in this day and age."
Ever more people are getting to see grizzlies in and around Yellowstone; while more sightings would seem to suggest a healthy population, the bear's future remains uncertain and a source of controversy. Listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) since 1975, grizzly bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem are thriving. Biologists estimate that the population has rebounded from about 200 animals in the mid-1970s to more than 600 known individuals last year. The rise also means the bears are increasingly coming into contact with humans. Just as he thinks we need grizzlies, Servheen believes grizzlies now need us to survive. More grizzly-human encounters inevitably result in more dead bears--and, recently, more dead humans. This past summer grizzlies killed two hikers in the park. In the summer of 2010 there were two fatalities just outside park boundaries. Prior to those killings, there had not been a grizzly-caused death in Yellowstone since 1986.
More bears are dying, too--44 known deaths in 2008 (32 attributable to humans), and 47 in 2010 (40 human-caused), both record years since their 1975 endangered species listing. In 2007 the Bush administration, citing the flourishing population, removed federal ESA protections from grizzlies in the Yellowstone area--designated as a distinct population segment--and declared them recovered. But conservation groups sued, and last year the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a 2009 ruling that returned the bears to the list. In 2007 environmentalists argued that the grizzly's future remained uncertain for several reasons, including the effect global warming and an infestation of mountain pine beetles might have on its traditional food sources. Removing federal protections without understanding what will happen when the bear's diet is greatly diminished, the plaintiffs argued, would be foolhardy.
Even among biologists in the bear recovery arena, there's disagreement about the species' future, and Yellowstone grizzly science has become highly politicized. State and federal biologists who support delisting point to, among other factors, inarguably positive population numbers, growth trends, and reproduction rates. Other conservation biologists, however, contend that trends not accounted for in population figures--like food shortages and proliferating development--pose a danger for even a population as robust as Yellowstone's.
The arguments have grown bitter. Jesse Logan, a researcher and former U.S. Forest Service scientist who studies whitebark pine--whose seeds form an important part of the bear's diet in the Yellowstone ecosystem--believes "the atmosphere is so poisoned it's almost impossible to get an objective view now," and that Congress should order a review by the National Academy of Sciences.
On the other side, Servheen says that environmental groups are trying to demonize the very agencies that brought Yellowstone's bears back from the brink. "For decades we've worked for the conservation of these bears and their habitat, and these environmental groups were nowhere to be seen. And then when [the bears] are recovered, they show up and bray that they need to save the bear from the evil agencies. That's all pretty sad."